Thursday, 24 July 2014
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Time to dispel the nuclear myths

Watching the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power station develop is frightening and frustrating for everyone. For understandable reasons, information comes from the plant slowly, and with the ultimate causes of the multiple failures at the plant still uncertain, everyone reporting on the situation is working in the dark.

One thing which has become clear, however, is the startling lack of knowledge about nuclear power in the UK. Misinformation, wrong information and downright hysteria appear daily in newspapers — even non-tabloid ones — and the tone of television news veers wildly from informative to alarmist.

One TV anchorman, normally a bastion of rationality, seems not to understand the difference between the primary containment of the plant’s reactor vessels and the roof of the building. Another reporter confuses milliSieverts per hour with milliSieverts per year. A respected newspaper describes spent fuel rods as ‘dirty bombs’ in a headline. Is it any surprise that The Engineer received a phone call last week from a worried mother in the UK asking if she ought to be buying iodine tablets to protect her children from the cloud of radiation that surely must be heading our way?

The level of ignorance around nuclear energy is surprising. The satire of The Simpsons is one thing, but many people genuinely believe that all it takes for a nuclear emergency to happen is ‘Homer falling asleep at the controls’. In one particularly staggering moment, a broadcaster expressed amazement that all the nuclear reactor actually does is boil water. Many people don’t realise that, as far as the generation of electricity is concerned, we’re still essentially in the steam age.

Let’s face it, it is hardly surprising that there is fear and uncertainty surrounding nuclear power. The world’s first encounter with the energy embedded in the atomic nucleus was when it was used to destroy two cities. The early years of nuclear power were bedevilled with secrecy because of the continuing link with the military. But the continuing ignorance is less understandable.

The nuclear industry is aware that people still don’t trust it, but it is the only body which can dispell the myths and fears surrounding its operations. And to do that, it has to tackle that fear head-on. It’s no use just saying that our reactors are safe, that we don’t have earthquakes or tsunamis here; people don’t believe it, and the mainstream media have no brief to reassure the public. The industry has to explain itself, in terms the public can understand, without being patronising and avoiding any hint of complacency. It has to understand people’s concerns, their level of existing knowledge, and address these directly.

Everyone talks about public engagement, but it seems that nobody really takes it seriously until there’s an emergency or a disaster. If there’s one lesson that the UK nuclear sector can take from Fukushima immediately, it’s that it has much more of a communications struggle on its hands than it might have thought. The stakeholders of nuclear power need to have a major rethink about how they address the public at all levels and in all circumstances, to demystify the operation of nuclear power and quantify the risks. It might have suited the industry once to operate in a fog of complexity. It doesn’t anymore.

Readers' comments (35)

  • Another factor that is hardly ever considered is that one of Nuclear Power's dis-advantages is also an advantage. The waste is dangerous , but that means it has to be safely contained - it cant just be pumped into the air like it is from conventional power stations. Lets balance illnesses caused from the continuous air pollution ( not to mention future problems caused by global warming) pumped out from our conventional power stations , against the very rare occassions that radiation is released in Nuclear accidents.

    Mark Hassell

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  • It is about time the BBC and independants broadcast a joint programme to explain in terms that all can understand just how a nuclear power station generates electricity. The basic design of the reactor and its containment needs to be clearly explained, as do all the safety systems included. The ideal person to front this would be Prof. Brian Cox as he is, at present, probably the most recognised scientist on TV.

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  • does anybody have a sensible plan for the waste yet or how to fully decommission the old ones?

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  • The engineering establishment has been singularly hopeless at engaging the public with the merits of engineering generally. It seems very optimistic to expect anything better regarding nuclear power when they can't even agree whether to have a restaurant in the hallowed halls of their institutions...

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  • I’m afraid that all the time the likes of the BBC has politically correct leftists running it who allow their reporters to express their opinions (tone of voice & facial expressions) instead of reporting facts thing will not change. You only have to look at the way the reporters talk to each other, it’s as though the licence payer wasn’t there.

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  • Even supposed experts routinely confuse "radiation" with "radioactive contamination" or the release of radioactive material. How often have we heard "the reactor emitting clouds of radiation" or "water contaminated with radiation"? The radiation emitted by anything on site is only of concern to those in the plant. However any radioactive material release can be spread far and wide on the wind. I get very frustrated when even people who clearly know better appear to confuse these two things. It is simply sloppiness for which there is no excuse.

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  • Excellent article that is well overdue with all the exaggerated newspaper coverage with what has unfortuanately happened in Japan .....ignorance is still very much bliss within the UK press and the right message to the great British public should be at the forefront of all the agendas of the stakeholders currently bidding for the Nuclear 'New Build' programme in the UK.......the horse however appears to have already departed the stable!

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  • The misinformation and misunderstanding goes beyond the issues that are mentioned in the article. Yes, Nuclear Power has signficant risks. Yes, when system fail it is possible to dump massive amounts of radioactivity into to the environment in a short period of time.

    With this said we do not worry about the massive amounts of radioactivity that are dumped into the environment as the result of coal fired power plants routinely every year. What is that doing to our environment and our health?


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  • Well said. People don't realize that it's steam technology - I was asked once if the radiation might travel through the grid! I don't know if people will be educated, though. Just as no-one wants the waste in their backyard, they don't want windmills, and probably don't want to lose their valley to a dam - the most remarkable power of all - water. Certainly some attempt at informing the public has to be made, but if we are responsible in deciding what power plants go where, and how to preserve ecological and social environs, we will have no skeletons in the cupboard - our children are at stake as much as any offspring of the protestor - who should also be listened to if their complaint is valid.

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  • We should build reactors in nuclear bunkers. This protects against terrorists and accidents. The waste has to be stored safely underground. A terrorist nuclear bomb or a major fire or plane strike at fukishima would disperse all the radiation in the used fuel elements. We have to design for these possibilities because because the worst case hazard is so bad. The risk of these hazards is small but I think we can expect some such incident in the next 50 years and need to design protection against it. 911 demonstrates risk.

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